A nutritionist shares important guidelines on what to look for when buying meat.

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated January 20, 2021
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choice cut steak
Credit: Bryan Gardner

Beef, pork, and lamb are flavorful proteins that lend themselves to countless preparations. But headlines in recent years about E. coli infection and increasing concerns about the health risks of growth hormones and antibiotics could send even the most devoted carnivore to the produce section. When shopping for meat, it's imperative to seek out the highest-quality and most humanely raised products you can afford. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Nicole Rodriguez shares practical advice on shopping for, and safely consuming, red meat in a way that's better for both you and the environment.

Understanding Labels

Beef labeled as "prime" boasts the most marbling, "choice" cuts are tender and juicy with less marbling, and "select" cuts are often the leanest, but slightly less flavorful. Beef labeled as sirloin, top, and/or round is often leanest, but flank steak, chuck tender roast, and strip steak are also better-for-you options. The same rule of thumb applies for pork, too; "loin" or "chop" cuts are the leanest cuts.

Any meat with a USDA organic label is guaranteed to come from animals raised on organic feed, without antibiotics or growth hormones. "In order to make an organic claim or use the USDA Organic Seal, the final product must follow strict production, handling, and labeling standards and go through the organic certification process. The standards address a variety of factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, and pest and weed control," says the USDA.

What Does Grass-Fed Really Mean?

"Spoiler alert: All beef is grass-fed! The difference is in the 'finish' or final phase of the cattle lifecycle," says Rodriguez. Red meat products labeled as "grass-fed" means that cattle will feed on grass for the final six to 10 months, whereas grain-finished meat means cattle that are grain-finished will spend their final four to six months feeding on grain. According to Certified Humane, a nonprofit organization that advocates for animal welfare, grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. While this is true, grass-fed beef still has less than five percent of the omega-3s found in salmon, so it's not a significant source.

However, a grass-fed diet may be healthier for cattle. Cows and sheep digest grass better than grains, and there is evidence that grass-farmed cattle are healthier, produce more nutritious meat, and are less likely to need antibiotics. No government agency currently regulates the "grass-fed" label, so shop from a trusted meat supplier.

What Does Certified Humane Mean?

When the nonprofit organization Certified Humane's label appears on meat packaging, it means that the cattle were raised humanely from pasture to slaughter, without antibiotics or hormones. This designation is independently verified. Some other labels—such as antibiotic-free, free range or free roaming, biodynamic, and natural—are good to look out for, but there's no independent verification that confirms their accuracy.

How to Safely Store and Prepare Meat

Treat beef, pork, and lamb the same way—according to the USDA, all should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (and 160°F for ground meat) to reduce the risk of food poisoning and exposure to E. coli and other food-borne bacteria. Raw meat should always be stored on the lowest shelf or in the lowest drawer of your refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination with raw produce. Once you bring raw meat home from the grocery store or butcher's shop, make note of how long it's been in the refrigerator. Ground meat and pre-cut chunks (think beef cubes for stew) are best prepared within one to two days of purchase; steaks, chops, and roasts can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days.

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